Cruise Ship Ranks and Hierarchy


Working on a cruise ship is a unique environment. Although one may argue that it’s just a floating resort, a look closer identifies that hierarchy and ranks are embedded in each cruise job onboard. By understanding the difference in stripes and ranks you’ll get to know how the chain of command works on a cruise ship.


Overview of Cruise Ship Hierarchy

A cruise ship is run like a small corporation. Similar to the president of a company, the Captain is in charge and is ultimately responsible. The Captain has a handful of senior officers that report to him just like a handful of vice presidents that would report to the president of a company. Beyond those high level ranks, the larger the cruise ship, the bigger the organizational chart of other ranks and cruise ship jobs that there are.

Typically, each department has a department head, managers, supervisors and crewmembers. (The actual title of each cruise job varies by cruise line). This equates to a chain of command that all those working onboard must adhere to. Another term for cruise job is rank. The rank of all officers and crew on cruise ships governs not only their working environment but also their cabin assignment, where they eat, their emergency duty, and whether or not they have access to passenger facilities.


History of Hierarchy and Rank on Cruise Ships

When you look at both naval ships and cargo vessels, there has always been a strict hierarchy of command. Maritime laws govern safety of life at sea with regulations that must be followed by all officers and crew working onboard the vessels. The Golden Era of ocean liners evolved into the cruise industry today where cruise ship safety is also paramount.

In the past, cruise ship hierarchy was a very militarized organizational structure with lower ranks rarely questioning the authority of higher ranks. In addition, only few departments such as the Deck Department and the Engine Department wore stripes to indicate their officer status.

Although there are many differences in how cruise ships are managed today, the officer ranking system continues to be in place and has inevitably been expanded. In an interview with Royal Caribbean’s Captain Erik Standal for the website, Beyond Ships, Standal explains that the traditional militarized hierarchy on cruise ships is still necessary.

“We are a small community and in a community you have to have some order to control certain people.” He points out, “You have the ranking system in order to make it clear who is making the decisions…”


Cruise Ship Management Hierarchy

On today’s cruise ships, in addition to the Captain being in charge, there are a handful of senior officers that manage the ship’s operations and report to the Captain. These jobs include Staff Captain, Chief Engineer, Hotel Director, Cruise Director, Doctor, Food and Beverage Manager, and Staff Engineer.

Each of those department heads have managers and supervisors that report to them as well. (See the Cruise Ship Job Positions for more information.) Plus, each department is responsible for specific emergency duties.


Cruise Ship Officer Stripes

When you first start working on a cruise ship it may be overwhelming to understand how all the departments work together, who’s in charge of what and who reports to whom. Getting to know how to interpret the stripes on their epaulets is the first step. (Reading the officer’s name tag is an alternate method). For starters, each department’s stripes are represented by a specific colour of stripe.

  • Deck Department  –  Black and gold stripes
  • Engine Department –  Purple and gold stripes
  • Hotel Department  –  White and gold stripes
  • Medical Department  –  Red and gold stripes

The number of stripes indicates the rank of the officer. The more stripes, the more authority the officer has within their department. Each cruise line varies slightly with how many stripes a particular cruise job may have. In all cases, the Captain has the most stripes (4+ black and gold stripes)

Comparatively, in the Hotel Department, the Hotel Director is the head of his/her department. He/she may have four stripes. This person looks after all guest services, entertainment and revenue on the ship. Therefore, the Cruise Director, Doctor, Food and Beverage Manager, Customers Services Director, and Human Resources Manager all report to the Hotel Director and typically have between 3 – 3.5 stripes.

In some cases it’s difficult to tell who’s who on a ship because there are so many people wearing stripes. (Note: Some cruise jobs may not actually wear stripes but their job has a stripe equivalent in the case of the Cruise Director.)


Cruise Ship Chain of Command

Each cruise line has a slightly different organizational chart when it comes to the chain of command. Yet, most cruise lines follow the same chain of command protocol.

Click here for a simple diagram of cruise ship organizational hierarchy.

On cruise ships, you are expected to follow the chain of command whenever you have a complaint or concern. Always speak to your immediate supervisor first and allow them to make an effort to solve the issue. At no time should you jump the chain of command and proceed directly to the Captain.


When the Chain of Command Breaks Down

There may be times when you feel that your immediate supervisor has not dealt with the issue at hand. Or, possibly your immediate supervisor is the issue. If that’s the case, you take it one step up the chain of command and speak with the next in line.

Most cruise ships also have a Human Resources Manager onboard. This person is onboard for situations that you feel that can’t be resolved within your own department and also for situations that you feel are sensitive or personal. Feel free to speak this onboard HR manager.

All in all, working onboard a cruise ship can take a bit of getting used to, with its overly structured environment. But, once you experience it, you appreciate it. You know exactly what you can and cannot do. You know what your responsibilities are. You know who you need to report to. This military style is not for everyone, but many crewmembers and officers careers thrive in this environment.


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